Last October, Wolf Trap chief executive Terrence Jones assigned David Parsons one of the trickiest tasks in the choreographer’s 25-year career. Jones and a camera crew flew Parsons and his dance company to Everglades National Park. There, in the middle of a swamp, the crew positioned two canoes in a tidal pond and told Parsons to make a dance.
Turns out that much more was at stake for Parsons and his dancers than a few insect bites and an alligator scare. These weren’t just unusual circumstances for dancing. These were unusual circumstances for commissioning a new work of art.
Usually, when a commissioner asks a choreographer to create a new piece, there might be some negotiations up front, but the choreographer is then free to come up with a concept. What Wolf Trap asked Parsons to do was, essentially, to create 12 mini-commercials for South Florida’s national parks.
“Basically, they said: ‘Here’s a canoe. You are going to do a dance in a canoe. Here is the music. And this is how long it’s going to be. And it’s in a tide pool,’ ” Parsons said. “It wasn’t easy.”
Washington area audiences can see the results of this perilous trip to the swamp Saturday, at a celebratory evening that Wolf Trap is calling “Spirit of South Florida.” The event is the seventh installment in the “Face of America,” a series of commissions that have dispatched choreographers to create dances in national parks. The choreography is filmed on site, then presented at Wolf Trap as a hybrid live and cinematic performance.
For the choreographers, the commissions have represented a valuable gift of a multimedia work they can perform with their companies elsewhere. The evenings have each cost about $400,000 to $500,000 to produce, and the first four, mounted annually from 2000 to 2003, were funded by revenue from Wolf Trap’s successful runs hosting “Riverdance,” the Irish footwork extravaganza.
Then reality set it, Jones said, and he began commissioning the projects every two to three years.
What was different, this seventh time around, was that rather than giving Parsons free rein to roam a national park and create a dance, Wolf Trap assumed the role of Broadway producer, with the goal of creating a seamless evening of music, video and movement. Like a Broadway musical, “Spirit of South Florida” will have song and dance numbers, but it will also feature the sexy, athletic millennials of Parsons Dance.
With help from videographers at Blue Land Media, Wolf Trap’s team scouted Everglades, plus three other South Florida parks, and storyboarded the entire commission down to the length of each movement and the musical selections. For Jones, the goal is to end up with a night that promotes the national parks more than the last “Face of America” performance: Trey McIntyre’s funereal elegy to the melting of ice of Glacier National Park, starring a woman in a black dress and four male dancers in tuxedos.
“It’s fascinating, what [McIntyre] did,” Jones said. “But for me, it didn’t pull all of it together as a whole for the park. Bottom line, we are paying tribute to the park. We are creating new dance, but it is to pay tribute to these parks, and what they represent, both in nature, and spiritually.”
“Spirit of South Florida” project is, in many ways, Jones’s swan song as a performing arts presenter. At the end of the season, the 64-year-old retires from Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, the independent, nonprofit foundation that runs Wolf Trap National Park. During his 16-year tenure, Jones has commissioned more than two dozen new theater, music and dance works.
To be clear, Jones is not a National Park Service employee. The Park Service provides in-kind assistance for “Face of America,” but no cash. Jones is simply a nature buff. This fall, he and his wife are planning a move to Santa Fe, N.M., where he’ll pursue his side career in photography. He’ll also continue working for Wolf Trap as a consultant on one more “Face of America” project, which will be set in the Pacific Northwest and feature the Pacific Northwest Ballet, with choreography by Andrew Bartee.
“ ‘Face of America’ has garnered more international and national exposure for Wolf Trap than any other program we’ve ever done,” Jones said. He cited a PBS special, a CBS Sunday Morning news segment, a Smithsonian magazine cover story and a visiting German film crew. “We just finally came to the conclusion, for this [project], that we are the producers. It is like producing a Broadway show. We said, ‘Let’s create a whole [evening], and then let [Parsons] be free within that.’ ”
But instituting a “Broadway” creative process meant giving Parsons far less freedom than previous choreographers enjoyed. Unlike the other choreographers, he could not tour his national parks in advance. In 2001, Wolf Trap paid for choreographer Doug Varone to make an advance three-day scouting trip to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, traveling with Jones and the Blue Land video crew.
“When we first organized the trip, I had no idea what kind of dance I would make,” Varone said. “It was very much about looking at the caves, feeling their energy, being inspired by them...It was all me. I felt as if I had full artistic control of this project. I was the lead voice, in terms of the trajectory of the work and the sites that we used.”
“The Bottomland,” the work Varone was inspired to make, could be called the modern dance equivalent of historical fiction. His raggedly dressed dancers portrayed Depression-era Americans living in rural Kentucky. The dances, set to bluegrass songs by Patty Loveless, reflect those character’s struggles in love and life.
After the 2002 performance at Wolf Trap, Varone created a sequel for his dancers to perform live, featuring the same characters. He was able to tour with the work for three years, but he dealt with a few complications: The high-definition film created for Wolf Trap didn’t look quite as good once reformatted, and when dancers left the company or became injured, the performer onstage no longer matched the dancer on screen.
Still, looking back, Varone said he would have made the same artistic choices.
“I count ‘Bottomland’ as one of the top creative moments of my career,” he said. When it premiered in Manhattan, the New York Observer deemed it “the most interesting and moving work of the fall seasons.” Other reviews, including those written in The Washington Post, were also positive.
Two other “Face of America” companies — Project Bandaloop and STREB — also found ways to reuse their pieces, but both troupes specialize in outdoor, site-specific work. When Trey McIntyre Project received its “Face of America” commission, shown at Wolf Trap in 2009, the then-two-year-old company’s priority was creating a dance that would remain in its repertory.
“It is such an incredible investment that Wolf Trap is making, in the commission of a new work of art,” said John Michael Schert, a dancer who also serves as the company’s executive director. McIntyre “wanted to do that justice, by making sure it had longevity.”
McIntyre flew to Washington to edit the footage himself. He had even done some of the filming, grabbing a camera from the Blue Land team while his dancers performed on a particularly windy crest. The company raised additional funds to keep the dance piece, called “The Sun Road,” on the road, buying a $44,000 high-definition projector, and arranged for a residency at White Oak Plantation so it could devote time to create the onstage work. The extra effort paid off; the company toured “The Sun Road” in the United States and Europe for a solid year.
“This commission really opened up whole new worlds for our company,” Schert said.
When “The Sun Road” premiered, Wolf Trap flew in a slate of performers to fill the first half of the show, including Native American chanters, a cowboy poet and a New Age pianist. Jones designed Saturday’s evening-length work as a much more integrated performance.
Parsons dancers will perform in 12 vignettes, interspersed with music and photography. The first half of the program will feature music from Andrew Bird’s 2009 instrumental album “Useless Creatures.” After intermission, the dancers will be accompanied live by the Cuban American ensemble Tiempo Libre. There’s no downer of a narrative about the Great Depression or global warming. Instead, Wolf Trap’s marketing materials describe a show that sounds like an inspirational National Geographic special:
“Choreographer David Parsons will explore the movement patterns of iconic wildlife (alligators; spoonbill, Anhinga, and egret birds; and fish). He will highlight the recreation available in the wilderness and on the water, and will also honor the resilient spirit of a population that overcomes the devastating effects of hurricanes.’’
Parsons described the piece a bit more succinctly.
“They start off in the primitive swamp, and they end up in Miami,” the choreographer said, adding that he enjoyed the collaboration, but the concepts are not his. The team took him to the spectacularly beautiful locations, and he designed dances on the spot, using a mix of movement from previous works, improvisation from his dancers and new ideas.
The choreographer and the commissioner differ on what future “Spirit of South Florida” may have. Jones said he wants to see the whole evening reproduced, hopefully at theaters near the parks.
Spokesmen for the two Florida presenters scheduled to present Parsons this season have never heard of the commission. The choreographer described the night as “a one-off.” His plan is to repackage some of the “most high energy” vignettes and create a piece his company can perform during its annual run at the Joyce Theater in New York.
This is not to say that Parsons regrets the chance to be part of “Face of America.” He called Jones “one of the most dynamic arts presenters in the country.”
In the 1980s, when he left the Paul Taylor Dance Company to form his own troupe, Jones not only agreed to present Parsons Dance but also commissioned a new work to premiere at the University of Illinois’s Krannert Center, were Jones was formerly artistic director. And so, when Jones asked Parsons to fly to South Florida and spend 10 days dancing on beaches, decaying forts and even in canoes, the choreographer agreed.
“This one is for Terre, with love,” he said. “We pulled this one out for him.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
Featuring Parsons Dance, the show will premiere Saturday at 8 p.m. at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna. 877-965-3872.